McKechnie Field to hold first night game

McKechnie Field to hold first night game

BRADENTON, Fla. -- Turn on the lights, the party's over at McKechnie Field.

Twenty years after daytime-only baseball ended at Wrigley Field, the first night game in the 85-year-old history of one of Spring Training's most storied ballparks will be played Friday at the Pittsburgh Pirates' Spring Training home.

It's sort of a culture shock to laid-back Bradenton, a close-to-the-beach city of 53,600 residents on Florida's Gulf Coast that has hosted Spring Training since 1923 but has never witnessed a game played in anything but daylight.

"This is all new. We don't know what to do," said former Pirates reliever Kent Tekulve, a Spring Training instructor and a frequent Bradenton visitor. "The people are going to go to dinner first, then go to the game, as opposed to the game first and then dinner. The early bird special is going to be all out of whack."

Maybe that accounts for this surprising news: As of Thursday, 2,000 tickets remained for the Reds-Pirates contest, the second game of a two-city, two-stadium twinbill that starts 12 miles away Friday afternoon in Sarasota.

Because of the historic occasion, shortstop Jack Wilson -- the team's most tenured player with eight seasons in a Pirates uniform -- plans to ask manager John Russell to let him play in the night game rather than the day game.

"It's definitely going to feel weird at first," Wilson said. "But I think it's nice. It's great for the city. ... I want to play in it. I'd sleep in, have the day, then play."

After Friday, every venue used by a Major League team for regular season or Spring Training games will be equipped for night baseball. The last previous holdout was Wrigley, where the Cubs played only day games from 1914 until 1988.

"Spring Training is supposed to be in the daylight," said former Pirates manager Chuck Tanner, who first went to camp as a Braves outfielder nearly 50 years ago in Bradenton.

It was in the days of the Cardinals' rowdy Gashouse Gang, which gained its nickname from the Bradenton gas station owned by Hall of Fame pitcher Dizzy Dean where the players hung out after games. Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, Hank Aaron and Stan Musial and more than half of the Hall of Fame played in Bradenton. Barry Bonds went to his first Spring Training camp there.

All in the daylight, of course.

The Pirates didn't push for the $1 million lights upgrade to McKechnie, which opened on its present site in 1923 and was rebuilt from the ground up in 1993. They have only one other home night exhibition scheduled, March 19 against the Yankees.

There are several theories why the first night game hasn't sold out, especially since all tickets for the Yankees game were sold weeks ago. It's not from a lack of publicity, and vendors at McKechnie are selling T-shirts honoring the occasion.

However, not many visiting team fans are buying tickets; Reds fans are more likely to attend the day game in Sarasota. Also, the ballpark's neighborhood is somewhat depressed, with few businesses or non-baseball attractions and not a single paid parking spot onsite at McKechnie. That means fans must park on nearby streets that aren't well-lit.

And, like many other cities, Bradenton and its numerous residents who are retired or work in the service industry are feeling the pinch of a downturned economy.

Still, McKechnie is a miniaturized gem of a ballpark -- it can accommodate 6,000 fans only if they're wedged shoulder to shoulder -- and its spanking new lights mean it can host events more than one month a year, and not just baseball games.

When the Pirates negotiated $18 million in improvements to the ballpark and the club's nearby Minor League complex, an upgrades package partly funded by the state of Florida, Bradenton officials badly wanted the lights. They will allow the city to stage concerts and amateur tournaments and perhaps land a lower-level Minor League team.

Still, for those who come to Bradenton so often they consider it to be a second home, those six silver light towers that stand behind McKechnie's green grandstand seats look very out of place.

"You've been here for 40 years and night baseball has never been a part of it," Tekulve said. "I was here the night they did the dedication. At dusk, you weren't sure [there were lights] but when it got dark, they were great. It's going to be fun."